Crisis Comms for public sector

By Mel Atkinson, communications manager (corporate affairs) at Norfolk County Council

July 13, 2020 

"I thought I was experienced in crisis comms – and then Covid 19 arrived."

Mel Atkinson, corporate external comms manager, Norfolk County Council

Our NHS, social care and key worker colleagues deserve all the plaudits for their dedication, professionalism and bravery throughout this pandemic.

Public sector comms supported their efforts to protect the public’s health and wellbeing, through clear messaging, reassurance and information.

The pace, complexity and sensitivity of the issues presented daily and long-term communications challenges - and lots of learning.

Councils and their partners have had a wide-ranging role during the pandemic, including: public health advice and tackling outbreaks; supporting vulnerable adults and children through social care, befriending of lonely people and deliveries of food and medicine; helping the care sector to source protective personal equipment; working with hospitals on the safe discharge of Covid patients; advising schools on how to reopen, safely; setting up temporary mortuaries; ensuring key services were available online, when libraries and other facilities closed; and planning for how to implement the easing of lockdown and economic recovery.

The key communications challenges were:

  1. Responding to a relentless flurry of game-changing announcements from the Government, while attempting to look ahead and plan future phases of our comms work
  2. Working with the grain of Government messaging, while identifying the need to clarify and tailor aspects of it to our audiences
  3. Ensuring the council and its director of public health provided the main local voice of reassurance, advice and authority
  4. Partnership working and co-ordinated communications to ensure a united front across all public agencies in Norfolk – maximising the impact of our messaging
  5. Managing a comms team remotely, to ensure people who were working from home and were facing their own stresses were supported and valued and productive

The experience we gained over the last few months should improve the way we serve the public and our organisations:

  1. Comms has demonstrated, in the toughest circumstances, that it is a skilled, strategic profession. It should be wired into key plans and decision-making from the start.
  2. Swift, sensible and informed decisions can be made when the right people are in the room/Zoom. The culture of copying in half the world to approve comms products needs to end.
  3. Genuine partnership working can take place, if comms reps are open and respect the particular issues each organisation has. Let’s not second guess each other and let’s focus on the shared aims.
  4. Up-front accountability and engagement with our audiences, including the media, builds trust and should continue beyond crisis periods.
  5. Our teams have shown they will rise to exceptional challenges, if you understand them as individuals, you actually care about them and you show you are human, too.

As chief medical officer Chris Whitty said, we are not out of the woods yet. But public sector comms will continue to play its part - striving to be strategic, agile and effective, in the toughest of circumstances.

I'll share my key lessons and takeaway points from an external comms perspective in the CIPR East Anglia's webinar on 29th July at 7pm alongside Elizabeth Skeels from Essex Police who will share her experiences from an internal comms perspective. Sign up for free here.